Collection Center Collects Instability

A post I wrote for LinkedIn

Break It Down Show Host, Professional Speaker and Cultural Consultant.–What’s your “Ground Truth?”

Collection Center Collects Instability

We are fans of Rich. He’s a warrior, professor, surfer, hunter, all-around brilliant, rugged dude. His current gig is working as a Poli Sci professor at Troy University in Troy Alabama. Rich and I worked together in Afghanistan studying how effective or “affective” our work was as US assets helping Afghans. It’s not common for Poli Sci professors to get so close to the ground truth, and then to be able to test our policy and strategic programs as they implemented at the lowest level. This experience, we believe, is fascinating and applies directly to the real world.

A good example of what we did involves things called Collection Centers, which our government built to afford Afghan farmers a place to showcase products to vendors. The Center is supposed to create greater revenue for farmers. Despite the best of intent, and a lot of hard work, the program was and remains an utter disaster.

Why has the program been such a flop?

We, the US, came in and established these centers without ever considering how the existing system worked. We never bothered to determine how changing the system might be accepted or rejected, or cause harm to those we intended to help. We didn’t consider if the Afghans even had a system (which, of course, they did).

Instead of defining the existing system and assessing whether or how our tool might address a need, we just came in and started changing things It didn’t work, and we barely cared that it didn’t; and we reported the opposite.-

An aside–the if you read the report, look for mentions of Afghan involvement in the process. You won’t find it.

I spoke with an Army Major in charge of the program and asked him about the existing local market chain from grower to consumer. He admitted that he didn’t know about it. When I asked why he was trying to change it, I was met with silence.

We also never considered if we were creating a harmful situation for farmers, and that ignorance caused unexpected and undesirable outcomes. At the most basic level, Taliban fighters notice “western” influence. A farmer who uses (though they never actually did) the collection center is exposing his allegiance with the US and therefore putting his family and himself in jeopardy. Further, the farmer buyer relationship is established relationship. Changing the nature of their transaction is reckless in such a conservative, Taliban influenced place. What we can’t do is create a situation that is perceived to increase uncertainty for farmers.

We built these centers throughout Afghanistan. At every instance, covering multiple units, I observed the same poor US decision-making. We never bothered to involve our Afghan partners in the decisions and never allowed them to guide us on how to work within their system. We forced these centers upon the people of Afghanistan, and wasted more than money and resources in the process. We wasted opportunities to actually improve the lot of the farmer, which makes de-legitimizing the Taliban fighters more challenging.

Our need to force the construction of the collection centers denied the fledgling Afghan governmental leaders the opportunity to make decisions that might improve the lives of the civil populace. I need to point out that we would not only force the center upon the governor, but also pick where it would be built. Let me say this again and in another way. We never discussed the centers with Afghans during planning. We simply picked a place and assembled the center…leaving the Ministry of Agriculture representative to explain it to the hand full of farmers he might encounter—when he was forced to go out to distant farming districts.

The result of our combined actions reduced stability for farmers…and eroded the minimal, if any, support locals had for the governmental leaders.

These stories, these lessons are one of the reasons why Jon and I do this show. We can do better…whether abroad or sitting at the Solano County Transportation Authority meeting…data matters…help shouldn’t be forced as a default.

Listen to Rich, Jon and I Break It Down.

Afghan Polling and What It Actually Means

A recent article from the NYtimes suggests that Karzai’s power to influence the next elections is limited.
When I read this article, a number of things strike me.
First, why is the US Department of State engaged in political polling for another country? Is it at all possible that this is inappropriate? I would love to go ask folks in Afghanistan what they think about the western practice of political polling. Maybe, they don’t care; of course, that leads to the question of, “why spend the money to do polls in the first place…but we will let that go for the moment. The main question here is, “Is it (culturally?) appropriate for the US DoS to hire a company to conduct a poll, and publish the results of a survey that has the potential to influence elections in a foreign country?”
Let’s test this issue against my “How would we respond if something similar happened to us?” lens. I find this to be a useful way to determine whether or not an activity is culturally offensive, and hence, counterproductive.
Imagine if a foreign nation’s ministry or department of state polled people in New York City regarding our next presidential election, would we see this as benign, benevolent or helpful? Let’s add some detail and say it’s an Islamic country. Further, let’s say this country is occupying our nation. Hmm, I suppose we’d have a problem with that.
Would the people using the information, drawn from a sample of New York City residents, even have the knowledge that the rest of the country might not respond to the same poll in the same manner?
One last thing about the DoS and it’s polling. My personal experience working near the DoS folks is they lack the ability to know what the “people” think. They usually make decisions in a vacuum and tend to disregard the people they are seeking to serve.
This is a critical statement, but I’ve seen on any number of occasions large scale decisions, assessments and plans being worked without the presence of an Afghan. The “Accountability Ladder” of DoS is culturally ignorant and often times offensive, even dangerous, to the people the DoS seeks to help.
Second, Glevum Associates. How do I say this succinctly? I don’t trust anything they produce. My direct experience with Glevum has shown a serious lack of credible information being collected by this organization. One example should suffice…We requested a survey for the district I was researching. Keep in mind, I had previous experiences with Glevum in Iraq that made me reluctant to use their data. This time, when we received our data, I laughed. Glevum Associates had managed to survey more people than the reported population of the district. Again, they found more people than actually exist in this district.
I understand through direct experience that working in conflict zones is basically impossible to do well. I’ve learned to never trust my internal assessments. I constantly challenge what I think, always seeking to eliminate assumptions that I have made along the way. This critical view has allowed me to slow my pace and triple check my work, which might seem tedious, but it has invariably served me well. In this line of work we will make mistakes. I can forgive Glevum for succumbing to the challenges of Afghanistan. What I do not forgive is their arrogance.
When my partner and I brought our concerns to the folks at Glevum, we were dismissed. When fair critical questions regarding research methods were raised, no answers were found. I witnessed an exchange between to PhD level researchers and the doctor presenting Glevum’s research lost badly. Their guy had no real answers for their methods and results.
In a place as challenging as Afghanistan, where data is at best unreliable, one can never assume to have the right answers. There are too many factors that can influence results. This environment demands greater rigor than one would apply to US based research.
Glevum Associates claim a 2% margin of error. That exceeds the level of accuracy of nearly all of our polling data from our last election. Glevum wants you and the DoS to believe their numbers are actually better than numbers we generate here in the US…ugh.
From the article,
“Among the 2,148 likely voters surveyed by Glevum, 85 percent said they would not be swayed if Mr. Karzai decided to endorse a candidate or that it would not matter. The poll, conducted through face-to-face interviews and obtained ahead of its release on Sunday, has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus about two percentage points.”
Let’s apply my critical lens again…if a research company sampled 2200 people in NYC, would any research firm dare to say they were able to report accurately within a 2% margin? No, they wouldn’t.
I think my observations raise some serious questions for our folks at DoS. Who is responsible for requesting this data? Who is holding Glevum accountable for their work? Who is going to have Glevum open the books, for starters, on their collection methodology? Who can truly test the reliability of the information they are providing? A closer look might reveal that their data shouldn’t be used for anything other than an undergraduate statistics assignment on generating descriptive statistics from a convenience sample.
Now with the challenge proposed, will Glevum accept? Will DoS? To be continued…

Rule of Law, Part 2

While I work to help stabilize Afghanistan, I come across many astonishing stories. Most of the time these stories evaporate into fables and nothing. However, this recent Rule of Law encounter has been captured. Follow the link to see the story.

You won’t see, or hear me in the story…but that’s the point. I’m not the story. It’s the story of Afghans settling decades old problems. Turns out the old 25 year fight was actually a 51 year feud that was totally resolved just this week. The growth of the people and their willingness to unite is impossibly rare and wonderful. Enjoy the story.

Beers with Barack

I thought I’d write an advice blog to our President.

Barack, G.W. Bush writes about the negative things said about him in his book “Decision Points.” He notes how it’s basically impossible to get a quality guy to run anymore because of the evil things people say about the man in office. The grind of the decisions, the constant criticism…Oh and solve the world’s problems while we yell at you “hurry up!”

Does you really want to do this again?

2nd terms have not been wonderful. Bush’s legacy wasn’t helped by a second term? His “mandate” disappeared and he couldn’t fix social security. Meanwhile, his ratings plummeted.

Clinton was essentially shut down 18mos into his second term. Reagan started napping and Iran-Contra tarnished him. Nixon? gosh? Who’d want that legacy?

Johnson said he wouldn’t run for a 2nd term (in his own right) and his party kicked him in the ass and said, “Great thanks!” Quite the send off…

Though Truman has a better reputation…he wasn’t considered a good president until well after he left office.

Eisenhower? There’s the standard…he had the best 2nd term.

The point is, the things the Presidents do, they do early SOMETIMES. This makes sense. They have all the energy, they have their pick of their party’s best and brightest. By year 5 the magic is gone. There is no honeymoon, and DC holds grudges. It becomes impossible to do anything. This isn’t roll up your sleeves and get to work type stuff…this is stranded in the ocean wondering where the fuck your friends went type fucked…

The more you do, the more others sell their products by destroying you. It’s like you and Bush fueled the hate every time you did anything. I don’t want that for anyone. Think about the staff?

These guys serve under you. They don’t get the titles and speaking gigs. The best and brightest leave and do other things beside get hammered by the media. When you’ve got to pick the 3rd or 4th guy for a job, you don’t get your “man” but someone else ‘s guy.

Look, Barack, do what you want to do, but don’t just run. History doesn’t favor 2nd terms. You’re a smart guy, maybe you can do what those guys couldn’t, but be honest…that’s a mighty big challenge…and your challenge shouldn’t be fighting the system, it needs to be leading.

There isn’t going to be another super majority favoring your platform. There’s a decent chance Democrats lose both houses. Every initiative is going to be a fight and that means concessions…that’s just not your style.

The economy isn’t getting better. Shoot even your peers in the party aren’t happy with the results…Matt Damon is disappointed…this isn’t good.

Why do it? Why subject your family to the hate? Have you looked in the mirror and seen how four years hangs on you? Go raise those girls…give them a Dad full time.

Don’t quit….You’re adored by a huge hunk of America. You don’t need a congress to get things done. You can make a fantastic living/impact being Mr. President outside of the White House. Get all Obi Wan on ’em and become more powerful than ever.

Bill Clinton is your model here. He NEVER misses, he’s taken a failed 2nd term and turned it around…it took him about 12 years to get there, but he’s done it…now pass me a Coors Light